Read the preface of “The Heaven on Earth.” A book that makes one feel like being inside Guruvayur Temple, in eternal prayer. A book by Pepita Seth.
Although from the very beginning I knew Heaven on Earth: The Universe of Kerala’s Guruvayur Temple would evolve in its own way, I determined to keep my presence in it to the barest minimum, making no personal comments unless I felt they would increase the reader’s understanding of the temple. While, 7 years later, my decision still holds, I sense that it might be helpful if I explained what drew me to the subject and the extent of my emotional involvement.
I am English and grew up on a farm in Suffolk. My parents were neither churchgoers nor in the slightest bit interested in any aspect of any religion. They did, however, adhere to the premise that God was an Englishman—a concept that seemed to absolve them from any further involvement in the matter. In any case, their generation considered that religion, like money and politics, was never to be discussed. Devoid of any outside stimulus that might arouse interest or curiosity, I should, I suppose, have adopted their attitudes and followed their example. Ironically, things began to change in 1970 when I chanced upon a diary chronicling my soldier greatgrandfather’s participation in the 1857 march from Calcutta to Lucknow, and his experiences in the subsequent fighting.
Of course, though the diary never mentioned religion in general or Hinduism in particular, its effect was subtly subversive, for, by arousing my curiosity, it inspired me to make my first visit to India to retrace the journey it described.
Years later, an Indian friend observed that my place of birth had been a postal mistake: ‘You were addressed to India,’ he said, ‘but wrongly delivered to England.’ The diary ensured that I was re-directed. Yet, though it certainly started my relationship with India, it was my second visit that led me into something deeper and more personal—a relationship with Kerala. Kerala reached right inside me and rearranged how I looked at life, forcing me to form my own opinions of the divine, the soul, the spirit and the very nature of God. In many ways I was like a traveller who only discovers the depths of his thirst when he arrives at a well. I drank deep and experienced profound satisfaction.
The real miracle, however, was Kerala’s willingness to go on providing wells from which I could drink by allowing me access to her sacred spaces: her temples. Once I was officially permitted to enter Kerala’s temples, a right I received in 1981, I was absorbed into a world that has never ceased to amaze and satisfy me.
In the context of this book, it is undoubtedly fitting that the first photograph I took in Kerala was of Guruvayur Temple’s legendary elephant, the great tusker Guruvayur Kesavan. The irony, however, is that not once during the 3 subsequent decades I spent photographing Hindu rituals throughout Kerala did it cross my mind to consider doing so in Guruvayur. Well not until one February morning in 2001 when someone in the temple asked me why I never took photographs there ‘considering that you take them in every other temple’.
The remark was like a stone dropping down the shaft of an extraordinarily deep well—it fell and fell—and kept on falling whilst I fought to resist its lure, certain the water would never be reached, that the possibility did not really exist.
And then I heard the splash, and, to change metaphors, began falling for the bait.
Perhaps there was the subconscious awareness that I was anyway looking for a project without having to undertake journeys to the back of beyond to reach ceremonies that took place in the middle of the night. A small voice began to whisper that this was it, that Guruvayur was no more than 40 minutes by bus from Thrissur where I live, and that everything would be within the confines of the temple walls.
Yet I declined, deeply conscious of the difficulties that would face me if I acquiesced, and innocently unaware that the question had been serious.
I was shouted at, roundly: ‘Who are you to disagree when the Lord has just suggested this to you?’
I know when to back down.
I agreed. And so began a truly extraordinary experience that tested every fibre of my being and touched every emotional nerve I possessed.
To begin with, I had absolutely no idea of the levels and layers of the temple’s universe. And it was just as well. I doubt, despite the shouting, that I would have continued had I had the slightest inkling. Yet, as I began to comprehend the enormity of what I had let myself in for, I was horrified at the vastness of the chasm that yawned before me. I constantly determined to reduce the scope of what I was doing, but, somewhere along the way, I realised that regardless of the direction in which I tried to push the project, I was repeatedly being driven back into attempting a complete description of life within the temple.
It is for others to decide to what measure I have succeeded, if at all, but I do know that what kept me going was the extraordinary sense of support within the temple. Although, when I began, I knew only 2 people, I gradually came to know almost everyone, and, more importantly, to sense their acceptance.
Initially I was terrified of even taking photographs: on my first day with the cameras I did nothing but sit on the steps of the koothambalam, the temple’s theatre, convinced that there was no way I could continue. Then, just as I decided to admit defeat, someone smiled at me in a way that made me feel enveloped and comforted.
I’m not alone here, I thought.
And so, buffeted by doubts and deeply aware of the difficulties that lay ahead, I continued. If asked to name the reason I did so, I would simply say, ‘Lord Guruvayurappan,’ for, when all is said and done, everything that happened to me—all the support, encouragement and help that I received— was always channelled through Him, given by His servants and devotees. Furthermore, I clearly saw the effect He had on me, how I drew my strength from Him and felt His blessings.
Such emotions are difficult to put into words but one day when I was talking to a former Head Priest, I said: ‘Guruvayurappan is everything.’
There was a slight pause before he smiled and said: ‘He is everything. That is it.’